“[E]very lynching deprives its victim of his life without due process of law, and denies him an equal protection of the law. The States are charged with punishing all such invasions as the common rights of the citizens, but some of them have failed in their effort to do so, and others have not honestly tried. Meanwhile, lynchings continue, and though they do not increase in number, they show some tendency to increase in savagery.
“To large numbers of American citizens life in certain parts of the country becomes intolerably hazardous. They may be seized on any pretext, however flimsy, and put to death with horrible tortures. No government pretending to be civilized can go on condoning such atrocities. Either it must make every possible effort to put them down or it must suffer the scorn and contempt of Christendom.”—H.L. Mencken, statement before a subcommittee of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, 74th Congress, February 14, 1935
On this date in 1922, the U.S. Senate faced an opportunity not unlike the one presented to the House of Representatives in January 1865, as depicted in the Steven Spielberg film Lincoln: the chance to improve the lives of African-Americans, in the most meaningful way. Unlike the Civil War Congress, however, which would narrowly vote in favor of the 13th Amendment, the Senate could not override determined opposition to a bill making lynching a federal crime.
A little over 12 years later, when the acerb essayist H.L. Mencken appeared before Congress to testify in favor of a similar bill, the legislation should have faced better prospects, as it occurred in the midst of a more liberal Presidency.
But Franklin D. Roosevelt gave Mencken even more reason to hold him in contempt. Unlike the columnist, who had, for the past several years, been writing searing denunciations of lynching as a violation of the 14th Amendment and urged its criminalization, the President, fearful of alienating Southern allies in his New Deal coalition, lent the legislation no material support.
The same could not be said for Warren G. Harding, a Republican predecessor derided, then and now, as a conservative with a tin ear for words. (Mencken himself, deriding his oratory as “Gamalielese,” wrote that it was “so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it.”)
But let’s give credit where it’s due: In October 1921, following a campaign in which he had been smeared as possessing African-American blood, at a time of rising Ku Klux Klan membership, in the heart of Dixie itself, Harding delivered a speech in Birmingham, Alabama, in which he lambasted lynching.
A year later—when he had less political capital because of GOP reverses in the recent midterm elections—he sought to do something about it while his party was still at full strength, before a new Congress was seated. He threw his support behind a bill, sponsored by Republican Congressman Leonidas C. Dyer of Missouri, making lynching a federal crime.
Dyer’s bill had already passed the House, but it became bottled up in the Senate, whose Southern members joined a nonstop parade of procedural slowdowns and filibusters to bring matters to a standstill. In early December, the effort collapsed.
If the failure of the measure had any good effect, it might have been in shining a light on a form of domestic terrorism which, as recently as 1920, had resulted in the deaths of two African-Americans every week, according to the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). Thereafter, Southern elites, embarrassed, began to shun the practice, and newspapers across the South began to crusade against it.
Perhaps FDR consoled himself with the thought that lynchings were on their way out. But two decades after the failure of the bill that Mencken supported and FDR refused to do anything about--and nearly 33 years after the Harding-backed measure died--14-year-old Emmett Till would be lynched after allegedly whistling at a white woman. The widespread revulsion following the atrocity gave greater impetus to an even more widespread civil rights movement.